Restaurant Tip Inflation: the 20 Percent Solution?

One of the most prominent restaurant critics in the country insists that you tip 20 percent at all times, which comes as a shock to some. When did 20 percent become expected? Earlier, it seems, than I thought.

restaurant check

 

The LA Weekly’s brilliant food critic, Jonathan Gold, wrote a post that’s been getting a lot of attention: “10 Handy Rules for Tipping":

Yes, I know your parents still talk about when the recommended percentage used to be 15 percent, and that the practice is considered barbaric in Japan. But it’s not 1973, and you’re probably not in Osaka at the moment. 20 percent.

It inspired a surprising amount of anger in the comments section, as tipping always does, which surprises me. I tip 20 percent, because my mom was a waitress, and tips paid for her master’s degree. And because the difference between 15 and 20 just doesn’t strike me as that much—on a $100 tab, it’s $5. For a job that can be difficult, and at all but the nicest restaurants, doesn’t pay terribly well, as Barbara Ehrenreich found, writing in 1998:

The seductive thing about waitressing is that you don’t have to wait for payday to feel a few bills in your pocket, and my tips usually cover meals and gas, plus something left over to stuff into the kitchen drawer I use as a bank. But as the tourist business slows in the summer heat, I sometimes leave work with only $20 in tips (the gross is higher, but servers share about 15 percent of their tips with the busboys and bartenders). With wages included, this amounts to about the minimum wage of $5.15 an hour. Although the sum in the drawer is piling up, at the present rate of accumulation it will be more than a hundred dollars short of my rent when the end of the month comes around.

In Illinois the minimum wage for tipped employees is $4.85; employers are supposed to make up the difference if tips don’t make up the difference between that and the standard minimum, but I don’t assume that always happens.

Anyway, I got off on a tangent. Kevin Drum of Mother Jones was surprised that Gold considers 20 percent standard, assuming it was 15 percent, and wonders when it changed. One commenter notes that Emily Post recommended 10 percent back in 1922. In 2004, Miss Manners said 15 percent was typical.

Some Gen X commenters say their parents tipped 15 percent, and that now it’s 15 to 20, which would have been my guess. It reminded me of Chicago Confidential’s advice to city-goers, which surprised me when I first read it, assuming that back in the good old days (specifically 1950) tipping was much lower. Their advice: “Remember that 10 percent is no longer sufficient for a waiter. He ought to get 15 to 20 percent.” They also recommend tipping liberally when using trains and taxis.

Which makes me suspect that 20 percent has been a standard of a sort for much longer than I would have assumed, and I wonder if it was higher in the cities.

 

Photograph: iwona_kellie (CC by 2.0)

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